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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 182-190

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Public and Private Rule:
The Wife and the Citizen

Judith A. Baer

Nancy F. Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000). v + 297 pp. ISBN 0-674-00320-9 (cl).
Sandra F. VanBurkleo, "Belonging to the World:" Women's Rights and American Constitutional Culture(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). xix + 409 pp. ISBN 0-19-506972-2 (pb).

History, like most disciplines, has privileged the male experience of the world. This phenomenon is familiar to bookstore browsers who find the U.S. history section arranged chronologically by war. But it would not be accurate to say that historians have ignored women. The study of women's history long antedated the rise of the contemporary feminist movement. Mary Beard, Page Smith, Robert Riegel, and Eleanor Flexner were only a few of the authors who published famous, or notorious, studies in women's history prior to 1970. 1 Much of this work corroborated Alexis de Tocqueville's observations in the 1830s. His argument that American women enjoyed remarkable status, respect, and autonomy was supported by authors who concentrated on "great women" or wrote about women in general. Similarly influential was Tocqueville's observation that Americans "have carefully separated the functions of man and of wom-an so that the great work of society may be better performed. . . . If the American woman is never allowed to leave the quiet sphere of domestic duties, she is also never forced to do so." 2

The fact that these remarks sound so quaint now demonstrates one of the major accomplishments of feminist scholarship. Replacing Tocqueville's idea of "the American woman" with a far more inclusive concept, feminist historians have shown that the last statement I quoted was incorrect when he made it. An equally important feminist contribution to knowledge has been to hold up the idea of separate spheres to long-overdue critical scrutiny. But scholars of women's lives must walk a fine line to avoid the trap of false dichotomy. Emphasizing the positive risks denying the reality of male supremacy. When Beard wrote, "the dogma of woman's complete historical subjection to man must be rated as one of the most fantastic myths ever created by the human mind," she seemed to skip blithely over centuries of oppression and to dally with the "great woman" approach to history. 3 Emphasizing the negative risks ignoring women's [End Page 182] genuine accomplishments and casting them instead as passive victims. Catharine MacKinnon's observation that "women have been economical-ly exploited, relegated to domestic slavery, forced into motherhood, sexually objectified, physically abused . . . and disenfranchised and excluded from public life" has often been interpreted as denigrating the women she describes. 4

Rhetoric aside, both observations are true. Over time, every calamity MacKinnon mentioned has routinely been inflicted on women. But Beard was also correct to insist on recognizing women's agency and initiative. Feminist scholarship has not replaced one academic orthodoxy for another. Instead, scholars have more freedom than they once did to conduct their research and publish their conclusions without paying homage to received wisdom. The two books under review bring feminist insights to bear on what could be labeled macro-history. Their subjects are vast, and their time spans range from colonial America to the present. Nancy Cott, a pioneer feminist historian, has produced a legal and political history of American marriage from the founding to the present. Sandra VanBurkleo's project is even more ambitious, if less clearly defined: Belonging to the World asks "how women have been governed, how some of them have experienced political authority, and how reformers have tried to improve the fe-male majority's access to the rights and obligations of citizenship (ix, x)."

Both authors comprehend the male supremacy under which American women have lived. Both studies also show that women have been essential, if not quite equal, partners in shaping marriage and the polity. (After all, women would have been indispensable contributors even...


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